This is not an article, it is a memoir. A memoir of emotions never felt before. And the surge of these emotions was so overwhelming that I wish to treasure them locked between my sentences. My participation in Super Chef Chennai 2015 was quite fortuitous and initially guided only by the reason of some good fun. Winning or even coming close to winning it was not the agenda. Till a few years ago, I wouldn’t have even imagined developing any sort of culinary interest to say the least. So gaining any skill in it was beyond my realm of thought and question.
But surprisingly it turned out differently. I have an absolute food lover and enthusiast for a husband on the dining table and an extremely talented, skilled and patient chef for a mom-in-law in the kitchen. So I guess down the years, the joy of cooking just percolated slowly within me. Also this amazing renaissance of food culture all around the world with multiple channels and shows on food is a harbinger of sensuality to the homemaker’s kitchen.
So there I was, zeroing on the perfect dish for the preliminary round of the Super chef Chennai. A lot of tweaking, tasting, and re-tasting went around till I achieved a satisfactory balance of flavours and complexity with my dish ‘Palato di Pita”. Next came the plating of it. And trust me; mummy (my mom-in-law) was so much keener to get everything right for me than I was. She took me around scurrying shops till we got the perfect cutlery, the right lettuce, the flower holder and every small detail attended to. That kind of warm encouragement and support goes a long way in winning competitions.
Next morning I left for the pre-cooked preliminary round brimming with sunny energy and my packed basket towing along. But to confess, I was very jittery once they led us to our table for plating. We had fifteen minutes to plate up and I had a lot to do in that time from tossing my salad, to stuffing my pitas, arranging the chips and placing everything impeccably on the table. Thank God, I finished it in the nick of time. And as I stepped back from the table, I was honestly pleased with what I saw, my plate did look attractive.
However, when I came out and took a seat, I was choking with unknown emotions. I had never ever felt emotional about my food but that day for the first time I naturally connected to it from my heart. Chef Vicky Ratnani later remarked that chefs’ cook because they have to. It is their profession and bread and butter. But home cooks cook for the love and joy of it. And I felt strangely glorious to try and put up some beautiful food.
An hour had passed, the judging of some 80 odd dishes was done and the list of the twelve finalists made. It was time to announce them. I was hoping against hope to be in that list. First name called out, second name, third name, fourth name, fifth name, sixth name… and I thought they only have six more to go. My heart was beating fast. Seventh name gone, eighth name gone, I was super anxious by now. Ninth name called, I was despairing, there were only three more to go. Tenth name called and it said, “Palato di Pita” by Radhika Mimani. Whoopi! My heart jumped out of its place. This was incredible; I really made it to the top twelve.
Though I had initially wanted to participate only for fun, the night before the prelim round I told my husband, “I really want to be in the top twelve tomorrow. It means more than fun to me now.” And so I called up my husband and mom-in-law to share my excited exuberance.
Now came the thrilling morning. I had knots in my stomach, really the kind you have before exams. I was very nervous. Cooking at home in the privacy and comfort of your kitchen is one thing but a live cook off in front of professional and exemplary chefs is a different story altogether. Add to it the spice of a surprise challenge. We didn’t have the faintest idea of what to expect. The mystery finally resolved itself at 8 a.m., when a senior chef briefed us about the rules. We had 15 minutes to acquaint ourselves with the pantry. Upon which we had just an hour to put up two dishes, one savory and one dessert using two core ingredients chosen by our luck. This was certainly a tough call for us amateurs.
My mind was whirring with morsels of idea but no whole dish. And the criterion of creativity, complexity, taste and plating were weighing upon me against the crunch of time. At 8.30 I picked up a chit, opened it and stared dumbfounded at the most unusual combination of ingredients ever. Paneer and Lauki (bottle gourd). Lauki!! What exotic dish can possibly come out of it? Ironically, desserts are my weakest point but that day lauki halwa was my promptest choice. However, what would add some depth to that halwa, I still had to figure out. I rushed to the pantry, grabbing things, running back and forth. And in that commotion, things became clearer.
I was tensed as hell before the bell set off but once I started cooking there was no distraction. I was oblivious of what tantalizing food my competitors were making or if mine would be presentable or appreciated by the judges. It was one of the most electrifying moments of my life, cooking under pressure. And I savoured every moment of it. I loved it so much that the rest didn’t matter. Sixty minutes of stimulating work and two dishes up. I was startled with myself. For savory, I came up with pan seared Lauki Roulades with smoked paneer stuffing. But Lauki Halwa couldn’t go out on the plate alone. So there went a French crepe and fig compote with it.
As we took seats in front of the judges after placing our dishes, I felt ecstatic. I have followed the seasons of MasterChef Australia with sheer delight but when some contestants would break down or get emotional after a cook off, I found it mushy and absurd and never understood it. But today, when I sat there with moisture glistening my eyes, I related to their very sentiment. It is one of the most profound senses of satisfaction, accomplishment and joy that inundate you. I texted my husband with these exact words, “I don’t know if I will win or not. But I did push my boundaries today and I sort of feel proud of myself.”
And yes in that moment of awe, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to some very important people in my life. My mom who taught me to work in the kitchen, my mom-in-law who taught me to create in the kitchen and my husband who inspires me to take measured and flavoured risks in the kitchen. It was a very humble and melancholic moment. Also, this memoir would be incomplete without my sincerest thanks to our mentors and staff at The Park who assisted us most kindly during the cook off. Well, past my emotional currents, it was my turn to take the dishes up to the judges for tasting. And what a privilege and pleasure I felt to stand in front of celebrity judges like Chef Vicky Ratnani, Sanjay Thumma and Rajesh Radhakrishnan and make them taste my food. It was another high.
Finally, after an hour of tasting and deliberating they came up with the three names that impressed them most. And guess what, Lauki Halwa and Lauki Roulades made it to the top three. Announced as the Second Runner up of Super Chef Chennai felt amazingly great, a confidence booster but the joy of that cooking experience is honestly exclusive of winning or losing. What started as fun turned out to be an emotionally enriching and accomplishing culinary experience. And yes, in the larger perspective this win might be miniscule but on a personal front it surely means a lot.